Improving Diversity in Tech Conference Presentation Slides

We talk all the time about the diversity of tech conference speakers. Many conferences aim for having 50% women speakers; other conferences have barely any women at all and make no effort to change that. We talk less often about how many people of color are on stage, but that’s a big issue too, and many conferences are making an effort to improve in that area as well.

But once the speaker gets on stage, does the diversity end there?

I often use stock photos in my slide decks, usually of people using computers and mobile devices. I took a look at one of my recent slide decks, and although I included a good mix of women and men, I found out that only one of the ten photos of people in the deck was of a person of color. That wasn’t intentional, and now that I’m aware of it, I want to do better.

So when I created a new talk on user experience that I debuted at WordCamp Calgary last weekend, I made a specific effort to use photos of people of color whenever I could find one that worked.

 

Making the photos in my slides more diverse is not really a big thing to do, in the overall state of the world. But it is certainly something I can do, that will make at least a little difference in making conference presentations feel more inclusive.

Now, I don’t make much money from speaking, so nearly all the photos I use in my slides I get for free, either from Creative Commons, public domain, or my own images. So that means when I’m looking for something specific to illustrate a point, there are less options than if I had a budget to browse all the stock photo sites.

One resource that helped immensely in finding more diverse photos was WOCinTech Chat’s collection of stock photos on Flickr. They have posted more than 500 photos of people, mostly women of color, doing the things that people who work in tech often do: working on computers, going to meetings, collaborating with other people working on computers, and staring intently at whiteboards covered in diagrams.

 

Thanks to this resource, about half of the photos with people in them in my latest slide deck are of people of color. So that was a big improvement for me.

However, my slides also include a lot of screenshots of websites, giving examples of whatever technique or principle I’m demonstrating in the talk. I wasn’t making a specific effort with those, so of the website screenshots which included pictures of people, only one out of nine was all or mostly people of color. I think this is another example of the same problem — people looking for stock photos for their websites aren’t necessarily finding or choosing photos of people of color.

I also took a look at slide decks from some other popular tech and design speakers. Some do a good job of making sure their photos are diverse, whether intentionally or not. Other speakers, not so much. One slide deck had 11 stock photos of people, and every single photo was of a white male. Most of the images were of people using technology, like a person at a computer or a hand holding a smartphone. Women use technology too, but these slides seemed to imply otherwise.

While looking through slides from other speakers, stock photos of groups, such as people in an office meeting room, often included a diverse mix of people. I think when you’re looking at a photo of several people, it’s more obvious when all of them are white or all of them are male. But photos of individual people in slides were very likely to be white and more often than not were male. Perhaps you are less likely to be thinking of diversity when looking at a photo of an individual person, rather than a group.

Thinking about diversity in the content of slides opened my eyes to another way that women and people of color are not well-represented in tech conferences. This is something that I will definitely be thinking of for future presentations. I hope other conference speakers will consider doing the same.

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